Rumors about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health have been circulating for years, but the latest U.S. intelligence reports claim that Putin is “definitely sick” and speculate he might have undergone cancer treatment in April—offered as an explanation for his absence from the public for much of the month. The report also claims that Putin survived an assassination attempt in March, and that this might have led him to being increasingly paranoid about his hold on power.
The intelligence report is classified, but three senior intelligence leaders, one from the office of the Director of National Intelligence, one a retired Air Force senior officer, and one from the Defense Intelligence Agency have spoken to Newsweek about some of the findings of the report.
“Putin’s grip is strong but no longer absolute,” says one of the officials, referring to Putin’s grip on power, rather than the notable gripping of tables on display in some of Putin’s latest public appearances. “The jockeying inside the Kremlin has never been more intense during his rule, everyone sensing that the end is near.”
While Vladimir Putin has maintained a public persona of masculinity and personal fitness, perhaps now, at age 69, this façade is—unsurprisingly—starting to show cracks.
But rumors about his declining health, as well as his impending loss of power, have been circulating almost since the beginning of his presidency. As early as 2005, The Atlantic ran a story in which a “motion analyst” speculated Putin might have suffered from a stroke based on his movement. In 2008, a Pentagon study suggested Putin had Asperger’s syndrome. In 2012, speculations went wild after Putin had been seen limping, which the Kremlin chalked up to a “sports injury.”
From 2014 onwards, speculations intensified when The New York Post quoted sources that Putin was suffering from deadly pancreatic cancer; The Week concluded Putin might have cancer of the spinal cord. What’s suggestive about these particular diagnoses, is that already in 2014, journalists and political pundits were envisaging that because of his imminent death, Putin was in a “hurry to invade Ukraine.” The speculations returned in March 2015, when after a couple of canceled meetings, rumors around a possible stroke intensified, and some sources went even as far as speculating whether Putin had died and been replaced by a doppelganger.
In 2016, political scientist Valery Solovei predicted that Putin might resign from office in 2017 for health reasons, admitting that “there have been rumors in the past,” but insisting that “this one looks more plausible.” Solovei made a return in 2020, claiming that Putin had undergone cancer surgery and was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, anticipating his retirement in 2021. In July 2020, Russian media claimed Putin was suffering from leprosy and might not even know it. And ultimately, among the latest round of speculations, The Sun cites “insiders” that analyzed video footage of Putin from 2017 and 2019 to conclude that some secret service agents of Putin might be transporting the president’s stool and urine to Moscow in a special suitcase, as to avoid analysis by foreign intelligence agencies.
Maybe the more interesting question isn’t about Putin’s health itself, but rather what is the motivation behind the constant rumors surrounding his health for the past 20 years? It is obvious by now that accurate news-reporting isn’t anywhere to be found, so what gives?
It appears that these rumors hope to rattle Putin’s image, first and foremost in Russia, and especially within the apparatus of the Russian government. As many of these rumors have suggested, “change is imminent,” and as such, may be understood as a call to action for those forces in Russia that would rather see Putin’s presidency end sooner than later. It remains doubtful, however, how efficient such tactics are after almost 20 years of misplaced predictions. After all, the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is also well known in Russia.
Unless another theory, according to which Putin is actually immortal, turns out to be true, it is safe to assume that one day the theories surrounding Putin’s declining health will turn out to be true. But given the devastating hit ratio of predictions to this point, it might be best to refocus our obsession with the Russian president’s health and plan for continued diplomatic efforts instead.